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His Dark Materials

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
His Dark Materials
from Film Forum, 06/20/02

Changing the subject from film to literature for just a moment, there's a new fantasy series gaining popularity with young readers. While it didn't arrive with the promotional hype of Harry Potter, Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials has won a lot of awards in the past few years (including the coveted Whitbread Prize). And its readership is growing. Booksellers have caught on a little late, and are promoting it vigorously now. It tells the story of a little girl who lives in an alternate-reality Oxford. Lyra is a compulsive liar, and her lies entangle her in the wicked doings of the grownups at the college. The grownups are persecuting children, stripping them of their imaginations, which they then use to power engines of war in an attack against God. But as the trilogy continues, our sympathies are changed, and we end up rooting for the God-killers.

While some Christians have gone ballistic with protests because they suspect a hidden occultic message in Harry Potter, there has been almost zero conversation about these books, which have an agenda that is anything but hidden. Pullman regularly admits, even boasts, that his series is a blatant, calculated attack on Christianity. He also declares that he wrote it to counteract the influence of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. (He claims Lewis's fantasy series promotes racism and is degrading to women.) And, yes, Pullman's alternative fantasy is written for children.

This week, Gene Edward Veith (World) cautions us about this new fantasy series. He writes, "Mr. Pullman's real objection to Lewis's children's books is that they are 'propaganda in the cause of the religion he believed in.' That is, that they are Christian. It is true that Lewis intended his stories to teach children Christianity, although they surely are more than mere 'propaganda.' The irony is that Mr. Pullman's children's stories really are propaganda for his religion, namely, a militant and slightly mystical atheism."

Why bring up this brewing controversy here at Film Forum? You've probably already guessed: the movie adaptations are already headed into production (the first is The Golden Compass). Soon, a weak and wimpy God will be overthrown at a theater near you. The hero and heroine will go to the Garden of Eden, and eating the apple will be their triumph. And all the while, kids will watch wide-eyed.

Having been drawn in and enthralled by the first volume, I was wounded by the way the story turned mean-spirited and malicious, confusing the church's historical missteps with the love of Jesus Christ and condemning both. By the conclusion of the trilogy, characterization, subtlety, humor, and whimsy have all been left by the wayside so that Pullman can preach his own anti-gospel. That's not art. In the end, Pullman is clearly guilty of the very accusations he hurls at Lewis—propagandizing and prejudice. Christians likely will not be the only ones to see this rather obvious point.

Christians are undoubtedly going to be upset about the films. But how should we respond to such a problem? Should we start picketing? Should churches host book-burnings in their parking lots? Should we start making videos criticizing Phillip Pullman? Should we read the book to our children, explaining the problems with the author's worldview?

I'm interested in your responses. How will you prepare your family for the imminent wave of Golden Compass-mania?

from Film Forum, 06/27/02

Last week, Film Forum reported on the widespread success of a popular book trilogy coming soon to a theatre near you. No, its not The Lord of the Rings. Far from it. His Dark Materials is similar in scale and ambition—his plot is nothing short of The War in Heaven, Part 2—but his intentions and ideas are of a very different color than Tolkien's, Lewis's, L'Engle's, or even J.K. Rowling's. Since these bestsellers are bound for the big screen, it seems appropriate to get the conversation going about what is sure to be a difficult issue for Christians everywhere.

The author of these imaginative, sometimes awe-inspiring works is Phillip Pullman. He is building a large readership and a vast audience of enthusiastic fans. (You can read reader responses to his works on several Amazon pages. Here are a few: 1, 2, 3, 4.) Christian readers are starting to voice their alarm at the series' portrayal of the Christian church. Christians are portrayed as evil, manipulative and murderous. They are even more intelligently villainous than the bad guys in the works of Tolkien and Lewis.

One reader review on Amazon.com addresses Christian reader protests: "People who have read His Dark Materials and claim that it is an attack on God need to get a grip. It is NOT an attack on God or the Christian faith, but is about growing up and the loss of innocence. The trilogy is labeled as a work of fantasy, and its positions on issues such as religion are not to be taken seriously." This argument may be shared by other readers, but one important spokesman loudly disagrees … the book's author, Phillip Pullman. He takes his anti-Christianity very seriously, as evidenced in a review at Third Way. (Thanks to watchful reader Ryan Bradley for passing along the link.) In this interview, Pullman also denounces C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia as "propaganda" for the Christian faith. He calls the books "racist" and "sexist."

I asked readers last week if they are going to prepare for book burnings. (A bit over the top, perhaps. But there were reports of Harry Potter book burnings in church parking lots, after all.) Should we picket the movies? Should we read the books? Or just leave well enough alone?

John and Trena Moran write in to say, "Our response will be the same as was for Harry Potter. We listened to critics, both Christian and non-Christian. Then, based on our convictions, we chose not to go to the theatre to see the movie, nor have we rented it from the video store, and have stayed away from products that support the film, toys, cereals, etc." Similarly, Geoff Biddulph writes, "I plan on reacting the way I always react to objectionable books and movies: by not buying them and not taking my kids to see them. The best way to hurt 'artists' like this is in their pocketbook by ignoring their products."

Ryan Bradley has a different idea about how Christians can respond to the popularity of the acclaimed books … read them and discuss them. "They would make an excellent choice for Christian book clubs to discuss. They raise objections to Christianity which are commonly held … but our community has convincing answers."

One reader offers a one-word strategy: Evangelize. "I have a real problem with all our political activism when the only plan for changing the culture in the New Testament is evangelism and discipleship, not political change. When hearts are turned to Christ, there will be no market for pornography, cocaine, His Dark Materials, etc."

Other Christians, however, argue that Christians should be knowledgeable about the works so they can show the weaknesses in Pullman's methods and arguments.

Patrick Oden says, "I believe the best response will simply be intelligent criticism. Surely the response Pullman is looking for is conservative rants and raves. We have the truth, so why worry and fret when someone challenges that?" Oden makes a follow-up point that should be a challenge to Christian artists and writers: "Pullman is filling a 'spiritual' void that simply isn't being filled by any Christian author like Lewis. That our flagship children's literature is now over a half-century old is rather discouraging. The worst thing we could do is rant and rave—the best thing we can do is offer intelligent dialogue and then begin to produce great authors who can themselves fill the void with redemptive literature."

Jay Woodham echoes the challenge: "I think the solution is very simple in concept, but difficult in execution: create literature and film deeply informed by Christian conviction."

Blaine Hill responds: "How do we respond to the reality of being part of a church that has historical periods where it more represented a kingdom of darkness than a sign of the Kingdom of God? The books' portrayal of the church … is not without grounds."

Sara Khangura writes, "I hadn't heard about these books before reading about them on your site today, but can't say I'm entirely surprised. Jesus told us that we'd suffer persecution for Him. It's sad that C.S. Lewis's wonderful writing is being attacked in such a flagrant and ridiculous way."

Ryan Ashton says, "All we have to do is perhaps engage a nonbeliever with 'Hey, what do you think of that movie? Do you think it's accurate?' and then have people say what they think about organized religion and God. Then the Spirit can do the rest."

Andy Bastable plans to take the same path. He's "looking forward" to the release of the movies … and to the accompanying controversy: "As a young Christian with many non-Christian friends, I often struggle to be able to talk openly about the Gospel and what it means—and I believe that Pullman's attempts to rabidly attack the faith may well rebound on him, and allow many more Christians an opportunity to address many stereotypes and prejudices that at the moment lie unchallenged in our friends, relatives and work colleagues." He concludes, "I really hope and pray, however, that Christian groups don't create a hysteria of ungrace around the books and films and instead seek to peacefully explain the differences between the 'religion' that Pullman attacks and the God of pure love."

Next week: Adam Sandler is Mr. Deeds. Also, patriotic reader recommendations.